There was hardly a seat open at the long table in the second-floor conference room in Borough Hall last Thursday night.
Parents, retired educators and members of the borough’s community education councils sat around the table and discussed issues concerning public schools in the borough including overcrowding, co-locations, new school construction and Common Core.
Sitting at the head of the table, Borough President Melinda Katz went around the room, allowing those present to introduce themselves and list some of their concerns about the state of schools in Queens. The DOE also had representatives present.
It was the first meeting of the borough president’s parent advisory board, which met semi-regularly during former borough president Helen Marshall’s term.
Next to Katz sat Deb Dillingham, the former president of District 28’s CEC, whom Katz appointed to the city’s education policy-making body, the Panel for Educational Policy, who jotted down thoughts and concerns throughout the meeting.
The borough president said she supported more arts and music education in the classroom, a stance she said is influenced by her own background in the arts: Her father was conductor and co-founder of the Queens Symphony Orchestra, and her mother was a founder of the Queens Council on the Arts.
“There are some who say STEM should really be STEAM,” Katz said, alluding to adding art to science, technology, engineering and mathematics as key fields of study.
The group also discussed co-locations and the need for more space, especially with the implementation of universal prekindergarten this year.
Nick Comaianni, president of CEC District 24, notorious for being the city’s most overcrowded, said there is strong opposition from parents to co-locations of any type, charter or public.
But Katz noted that the Bloomberg administration fudged numbers in the blue book — the DOE’s document outlining space estimates for each school building — to include space for art and music classes and even closets, to make it seem like schools had more room than they had, leading to overcrowding.
“Under this new administration, an art room is an art room, a cafeteria is a cafeteria and a closet is a closet,” she said.
But several parents expressed concern that the de Blasio administration would not include space for special needs students.
“Certainly we need to make sure that there is dedicated space for therapy in the blue book,” Katz responded.
Jeffrey Guyton, co-president of District 30’s CEC, which includes Long Island City, Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside and Jackson Heights, said the district is in dire need of a new junior high school. A vacant factory had been identified by the CEC, but the DOE did not move forward with considering the location.
Katz asked if the space was still vacant and when informed that it was, she directed the DOE representatives to take another look at it.
Vera Venerdi Daniels, a member of District 28’s CEC, said there also is a need for more junior high school space in the Jamaica area. Dillingham noted that there is a plan to build a junior high school at a site near Hillside Avenue and Parsons Boulevard.
Katz noted that the problem with upper class space is that the School Construction Authority has focused on building K-5 schools because they are easier to build.
“Because the K through 5 schools don’t require as much space, they’re easier to site,” Katz said. “And space for new schools to be built is obviously a problem in Queens.”
Comaianni also asked Katz to support the elimination of mayoral control, but she was uncommitted to that idea and instead responded with a defense of the policy, first enacted under former Mayor Bloomberg, that gave the city’s chief executive control over the city’s school system.
“I think the benefit of mayoral control is that there’s somebody to yell at,” Katz said, noting that the policy had only existed under one mayor until this year. “Let’s see how the new administration does. We’re only 100 days in.”